FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

July 17, 2014

For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.

It was inspiring; exciting; promising of things to come. It made Boston a national leader and a better place to live.

Which is why it is confusing and frustrating to find that Boston’s transportation agencies are proposing such a backward — and unsafe — set of proposals for Commonwealth Avenue in clear violation of its own policies. Two years ago, before many of the new policies were put in place, the city unveiled their ideas at a 25% design stage meeting. Those proposals were heavily criticized as inadequate or even dangerous by most attendees. After two years of silence, the city has suddenly reissued substantially the same thing and called it a 75% design. They say it’s safer, but the facts say otherwise. It’s upsetting to think that the transportation leadership doesn’t believe in the city’s own vision or follow their own guidelines.

The Walsh Administration needs to focus some attention on the currently overlooked transportation departments. This is a signature project that has to be done right. If it does not fully embody the city’s own exemplary policies we can unfortunately look forward to nasty and protracted project-by-project fights for years to come.

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MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

June 30, 2014

Scaled from A to F like an elementary school report card, automobile Level of Service (LOS) metrics are easy to measure and easy to understand. LOS is, essentially, the average amount of delay compared to a “free-flowing” road where everyone is moving at full design-speed – congestion! It is a powerful indicator: it has a direct relationship to the quality of the user experience (the amount of congestion and “lost time”), the environmental impact (longer passage time equals more emissions), and the road infrastructure’s adequacy (the relationship of traffic volume to road capacity) – with the car-industry-pleasing implication that the key to improving LOS is increasing capacity.

For the past half century, when the auto industry was driving national economic growth, improving car LOS was seen not only as a transportation priority but as the key to local prosperity and the “good life” for upwardly mobile citizens. Raising LOS was a required goal of nearly every transportation investment and project design. Not surprisingly, millions of dollars of federal Interstate Highway research has been poured into figuring out how various road features raise or lower LOS – most of which boil down to getting rid of anything that might prevent cars from continuously going full speed such as sharp turns, adjacent distractions, crosswalks, bike lanes, and buses.

But at some point this strategy imploded as the “if you build it they will come” dynamic repeatedly filled every new road, undermining both commerce and personal life.

Today, most of us have a more nuanced view of car traffic and a broader understanding of what improves our quality of life. Moving as many cars as fast as possible is no longer the highest priority for most of us. We’ve learned that car traffic can also negatively affect a broad range of policy issues, from environmental and climate protection to community integration and neighborhood equity, from public health and safety to land use and conservation, from business growth to job distribution, and more.

But what can replace LOS? We don’t need something perfect, just something better than what we’ve got. The need to go beyond LOS when deciding between possible investments and for evaluating transportation system designs has become part of the national transportation policy discussion. Many groups have begun working on these questions: people within the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals (APBP), the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the American Public Health Association’s Transportation Group (APHA), the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and others. Congress wrote in a requirement for “performance evaluation” into the most recent federal Transportation Funding Act, MAP-21. However, the regulations emerging from the Federal Highway Administration seem to focus on traditional traffic safety issues rather than picking up the policy themes of mode-change announced by the past two Transportation Secretaries.

This broadening of the decision-making and evaluative horizon makes life complicated for Transportation Planners. A senior MassDOT Engineer recently complained that the members of the Advisory Task Force for the I-90 Allston Interchange project were asking him to incorporate too many factors, saying that “we are not in the business of community development; we build roads.” But roads are a key part of community development – his comment, while technically correct, is indicative of the degree to which we’ve not yet found effective ways to seamlessly connect our policies, our transportation investment decision-making, our road design criteria, and our transportation system evaluations.

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FREE AND EASY: Open Ended Bicycling

June 19, 2014

Every year I am part of a group that does a one-day ride from Boston to Provincetown, about 146 miles. We’ve done it in blazing heat and nor’easter rainstorms – that was the year we later realized that each of us was secretly hoping our bike would fail so we’d have an excuse to drop out and go home. But we support each other and always make it. Of course, we end up exhausted. But we’ve learned that stopping every 15 or so miles for a snack and rest allows everyone to pull through. It’s always a great adventure and earns us great story-telling rights for months afterwards.

This year, the weather was almost perfect. Cool enough. Sunny enough. The scenery along the Claire Saltonstall Bikeway was, as always, mostly beautiful, although the hundreds of cracks already appearing in the newly repaved sections of the Cape Cod Rail Trail were a depressing surprise. And despite my lack of preparation and anticipatory worries I was astonished to feel stronger for longer than in previous years. At first I thought it was me – maybe I was in better shape than I imagined – but then I realized that the difference was the lack of wind! Pushing into a 10 or 15 mph headwind for endless miles is harder than climbing hills.

I love the feeling of being out in the world, gliding through on my bike, feeling my body work, chatting with friends, feeling part of a group. But best of all is the vacation feeling of not having anything to do but what I’m doing.   We were riding. There were no deadlines. The day was ours. It was free time.

When not chatting, a long bike ride is a good time to think. My pleasure reminded me of weekends when I’ve got a list of non-essential tasks to do. I wander from one to the next as my interest and energy flow, never worrying about how far I get although almost always finding that I’ve finished most of it by beer-time at the end of the day.

Or the feeling I used to get when (a long time ago) I hitch-hiked across the US and Europe. It was a letting go of control, an accepting of whatever came along, a naïve belief in my own ability to handle anything and in the benign nature of the universe, a welcoming of unknown adventure.

We seemed to have jumped from an enduring winter through a few days of spring directly into early summer. Clean off your bike. Don’t be afraid of going longer than you think you can. (Being with others helps!) Have fun. Feel free.

Thanks to this year’s crew: Eric, David, Bang, Jackie, Mark, Monica, Andrew, Meir

DANGER FROM BELOW: Our Leaky Gas Pipe Infrastructure

June 11, 2014

It’s bad enough that rain-water run-off from our streets takes oil-derived toxins, metal and synthetic dust into our soil then into our groundwater and rivers.   But it also turns out that human-injected poisons seep up from below our roads, destroying plant life, killing soil, and creating explosive danger on the surface as well. The volatile poison is natural gas.  And local groups are just beginning to measure its unwanted presence.

So long as it stays in the mind-bogglingly large network of gas pipelines running down almost all our streets to business and residential locations, natural gas is a much better fuel than coal or oil or gasoline. But it’s a dangerous amendment to the soil and the air above it if it leaks out. And it is leaking – a lot, as we’re just beginning to discover. There are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks in Boston and at least 20,000 across the state, releasing between eight and twelve billion cubic feet of natural gas each year.

OLD PIPES

Here in the Northeast, the major problem is the age of the pipe system. At least 17% of NSTAR’s pipes, for example, are over a half-century old and made of cast iron which, like a cast iron pot left outside, have rusted into a fragile skeleton. A big bang on the street above from a truck or other object, a vibration running along the pipe due to an explosion or even from distant repair work, the impact of frost heaves or a minor shifting of the ground – any kind of jostling could create a crack, sometimes small but often large enough for gas to begin leaking.

If enough gas seeps to the surface into a building it doesn’t take much of a spark to send it up. This year, seven people died in a Harlem, NYC gas disaster. A month later twelve people were hurt in Dorchester from a gas-caused house explosion. There have been similar explosions in Springfield, Gloucester, Fitchburg, Somerset, and Winthrop – with more coming.

But even if the gas doesn’t destroy our homes, and lives, it can damage our environment. Seeping gas kills roots – of trees, shrubs, and plants. Brookline, which is one of the first cities to begin investigating the problem, estimates that over a million dollars in tree damage has already occurred in their community. It’s likely that other cities have similar although as yet undiagnosed problems.

CLIMATE CHANGE

And when the gas gets up to the air it continues its dirty work – natural gas is methane which has a greenhouse warming effect up to 34 times more than CO2.   There are a lot of jokes about cow flatulence and climate change; natural gas is a much more abundant source! In Cambridge, gas leaks are estimated to have the equivalent climate change impact of the total annual emissions of nearly a third of all the cars registered in the city.

The infuriating aspect of the entire situation is that we, the region’s natural gas consumers, pay for all the lost gas and the dead trees and eventually for the climate destabilization. The cost of the “lost” gas is factored into our utility bills, a “surcharge” estimated by the Conservation Law Foundation to be about $38 million a year in Massachusetts alone. It is reflected in the high cost of doing business in our state. And it is our property tax that pays for the trees and plants that die. Not to mention the human cost of fires and explosions.

Utility and gas transmission companies are only required to fix leaks that are “potentially explosive.”   However, according to Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich, utilities would earn back the cost of fixing the average leak in less than 3 years. The companies know where the leaks are located – their “sniffer trucks” drive up and down as many streets as they can. But under current regulations they have no incentive to front the money in the first place.

ACTION

Community “HEET” groups have begun bringing the situation to light. First, starting in Somerville and Cambridge, they are using a precision methane analyzer to find the leaks and map their location. Second, the groups are mobilizing citizens to report and demand action on the worst leaks – just fixing the top ten will save ratepayers an estimated $45,000 per year and prevent the carbon equivalent of 500 passenger cars from hitting the atmosphere.

Even though we are most aware of the lousy pavement conditions on top of the road, sometimes it’s what’s under the street that counts. There are a variety of bills relating to this issue now pending in the Legislature. Get in touch with HEET at (info@HEETma.org) and find out what you can do to demand action!

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Thanks to Audrey Schulman for feedback on an earlier draft.

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Related previous posts:

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

> ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

 

A NOTE FOR THE NEXT GOVERNOR: Travel is the Least Important Thing about Transportation

May 27, 2014

Congratulations on your election. As you know, that was the easy part!   Here’s something waiting for you: our transportation system is in crisis. We can’t seem to generate the political will needed to raise the money required to upgrade our decayed rails, roads, bridges, and sidewalks to meet the needs of today – much less to lay a foundation for the future. Anti-government forces have been able to shape the public perception of transportation spending as a tax rather than an investment, a cost rather than an asset. As a result, things are falling apart.

But perhaps part of the problem is that we have allowed the public imagination to remain stuck in the belief that transportation is about vehicles and the surfaces they use. Perhaps we have to stop talking about cars and trains, roads and paths; not even about congestion or pot-holes or snow plowing.

Maybe the path to funding lies through other topics, other needs, other visions: Transportation is about where we can afford to live and the jobs we are close enough to apply for.   Transportation is about the asthma and diabetes our family members suffer from, the safety of our children as they walk to school, and the ability of our seniors to avoid moving to a nursing home. Transportation is about our ability to meet our neighbors and hang out together. Transportation is actually about the livability and well-being of our families and our communities.

Transportation is an individual act based on personal decisions. But public leaders and agencies have always shaped the decision-making context through infrastructure investment and regulatory policy. It’s time to adjust that context, at both the governmental and personal levels, so that it is easier, cheaper, functional, and socially praised to make better choices – choices that serve both our own needs and our world’s. The challenge is not technical but political. We need you to take charge!

Transportation policies, even in progressive agencies and firms, are usually talked about in terms of Mode Shift (away from Single Occupancy Vehicles), Complete Streets (to include maximum-possible pedestrian, cycling, and transit facilities), Clean Vehicle (to reduce pollution and noise and increase fuel efficiency), and the occasional “Bike Network Plan. This is the level at which transportation policy is usually discussed. But once again, maybe we are framing things in the wrong way.

Perhaps connecting the daily reality of people’s lives to transportation policy, and from there to funding, requires emphasizing three strategic themes: Transportation Has to Serve the Rest of Our Needs, Being Outside Should be Safe for Everyone from 8 to 80, Creating Livable Communities Require Better Neighborhoods.   And we won’t go anywhere on this unless you lead us there.

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TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT SAFETY: Looking Beyond Traffic Lights

April 28, 2014

My tolerance may have been low because of the bicyclist who had been run over that afternoon, the 8th Boston-area death in the past two years – five by right-turning trucks, two by buses, one by a drunk driver – and I was thinking that it could have been me.   But there it was, the rant that everyone who bikes regularly (and every city’s bike coordinator) hears from people outside their normal social circles: “I’ve got nothing against bicycles.  But the bicyclists out there are crazy.  They’re a menace. It’s not safe; they run red lights; they don’t wear helmets; they almost hit me; they’re blocking the road.  You’ve got to do something!”

But the more he talked, the clearer it was that this person wasn’t really talking about safety, or even about bicyclists’ behavior. He was complaining about the entire presence of bicycles in his space.   Bikes were newcomers into the street space that, however dangerous to use by either foot or car, he used to feel he understood how to navigate.  But now his comfort level had been radically disrupted.  And he was angry. I felt a bit sympathetic — I have mixed feelings about Segways.  It’s a normal human reaction: streets are a high stress environment and he felt that the presence of bicyclists was making it worse. Bottom line: Every cyclist in the city could stop at every red light, and everyone could wear a helmet, but he’d still find them upsetting.

Yes, I know that the bicycling community has its share of immature idiots who do stupid things and act obnoxiously to everyone around them, yelling at us as if we’re all to blame for his problems. I doubt that the percentage of offensive jerks is any higher among the cycling community than among car drivers and pedestrians. Still, interpersonal respect is something we have to work on: the goal has to be strengthening our empathy for the other person no matter how they are moving, and respect for their equal right to be in the public way. There is no excuse for rudeness by anyone to anyone and the presence of emotionally-disturbed jackasses within the cycling community provides a too inviting cover for wholesale condemnation. My hope is that as bicycling becomes more mainstream the social norms of “ordinary people” will temper the behavior of the swashbucklers who defined bike culture back when it was a high-risk, deviant activity.

Getting rid of these volatile distractions is important because safety really is an issue. Yes, cyclists generally should stop at red lights and wear helmets. But these are not the most relevant issues we need to address. The real problems are trucks without sideguards or blind-spot mirrors turning across intersections too small for their size; cars going too fast for human safety, even if it’s within the legal limit; distracted and drunk driving; the lack of separate bike lanes or cycle tracks on high volume/speed roads; and the need for cyclists to stop before entering a busy intersection – no matter if there is traffic light or stop sign or no sign at all – and to not ride the wrong way on high-volume one-way streets.   Like New York City, Portland, San Franciso, and Chicago, we need to endorse a “Zero Fatalities” vision, even if we set lower intermediate goals and then work towards making it happen.

As for the cultural problem of public angst about the presence of cyclists on the road, we need to continue to demand that our political leaders and mass media do their part to shape public opinion by making it clear that the streets belong to all of us, that bicyclists are an important and valued (and growing) part of our community, and that we have to respect each other not just to increase safety but to strengthen the interpersonal civility that makes our city a good place to live and our country a democracy.

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CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES FALL OFF THE SCHEDULE: State Needs To Find Funds Without Skimping on Surrounding Improvements

April 7, 2014

While work on the Longfellow and Anderson bridges is moving forward, plans for repairing and upgrading the in-between River Street and Western Avenue bridges and the messed-up intersections leading to them on both sides of the Charles River have suddenly disappeared from MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) agenda.  The bridge’s structural deficiencies are still there as are the approach roads’ deficiencies (have you ever tried crossing as a pedestrian in any direction from the DoubleTree?).   MassDOT, DCR, consultants, advocates (including the efforts of LivableStreets Alliance’s “Better Bridges” campaign), legislators, and community members have spent years worth of time negotiating, adjusting, and finally agreeing on a plan that would be a huge improvement to both safety and functionality, including physically separated bicycle lanes (“cycle tracks”) and much improved pedestrian crossings especially on the Boston side.  Designs are complete, permits are obtained, and contracts are ready to go.  But another funding source has not yet been identified. And MassDOT has indicated that, because other projects in the area will cause traffic problems, construction would not be able to begin until after 2019 in any case.  Still, despite this worrisome setback, this may be an opportunity to make the plans even better.

The Advocates and Community members’ main focus was on insisting that the new bridge designs include safe and ample facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as smoothing car travel AND that the project extend beyond the bridge edge to include the adjoining intersections and approach roads.  Prioritizing the surface-level layout was based on the need to fix problems in already existing facilities.  (Which makes one wonder what is being done with the bridges in other parts of the state where there are fewer or no advocates to push for more forward-thinking visions!)  However, the Charles River bridge agreements notably left out the idea of further improving non-motorized travel along the river by fixing the remaining seriously deteriorated sections of path along both sides of the river, as well as  creating underpasses at each of the bridges – the later an idea that the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) came to champion.  The CRC has commissioned technical studies and renderings showing that the underpasses are both technically feasible and would cost relatively little if done at the same time as the bridge repair work.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

MassDOT’s original reason for not including the Underpasses was that the many permits needed – from the US Army Corp of Engineers, various Conservation Commissions, and (most problematically) the notoriously uncooperative Mass Historical (preservation) Commission – could not be secured in time for the Accelerated Bridge Project deadline of 2016.  Moving the River/Western bridge work out of the ABP removes that scheduling problem.

As part of the negotiations around the Charles River bridges, MassDOT did agree to not repair the bridges in ways that would make the future creation of underpasses impossible.  Unfortunately, MassDOT’s official explanation of why work on the River and Western bridges is being delayed claims that ensuring the possibility of an underpass on the Anderson Bridge – coupled with the need to not start on these two bridges until work on the Longfellow and Anderson is complete – is what pushed the completion date too far beyond the ABP 2016 deadline.

It’s likely that adjusting the Anderson plans did make things for complicated.  However, rumors are circulating that this is a face-saving obfuscation.  If MassDOT had started talking with the Anderson contractor earlier in the process there would have been plenty of time to incorporate the needed changes.  According to the rumors, the real reason for delay is that the Mass Historical Commission has insisted that the contractor use a particular type of old-fashion, hand-made brick – and that several (maybe as many as 4) efforts by the only company able to produce these replica artifacts have failed to produce bricks with both the needed appearance and strength for the job.  Rather than take on the Historical Commission’s contentious Executive Director and possibly her boss, Secretary of State Galvin, as well, MassDOT is using the underpasses as its covering story.

The worst scenario would be if MassDOT decides to fall back on its old plans to just do the minimal needed safety-related repairs on the bridges themselves.  This may prevent additional parts of the bridge facade falling into the water – a non-trivial accomplishment! – but won’t do anything to improve regional transportation.  Getting the Charles River bridge work back on track, with the inclusion of both the river-side paths and the underpasses, is what is needed – but making that happen will require a united effort of the broadest possible coalition of agency leaders, advocates, community members and elected officials.   Starting now.

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STEERING THE ORGANIZATION: Using Decision-Point Criteria to Achieve Goals

April 2, 2014

MassDOT is legitimately proud of its progressive policies about creating a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system.  But the transfer from policy to facts on the ground has been very uneven and incomplete.  This isn’t surprising:  as with many other endeavors, road construction is a complex and multi-player process with gridlock and human life at stake.  It’s not easy to turn a ship as big and disjointed as MassDOT with its highway-trained staff and its enormous web of highway-derived vendors.

Fortunately, there are three high-leverage points in the project process – for transportation and in every other field – that can help speed policy implementation and adherence:

– Project Selection (both internally at MassDOT and through the MPO funding process),

– Project Design (particularly as summarized in MassDOT’s Design Criteria Workbook and Design Exception Report Guidance, which are themselves based on the new Healthy Transportation Policy Directive and the implementing E-14-001 – Design Criteria for MassDOT Highway Division Projects Engineering Directive);

– Project Evaluation (as captured in the new Planning For Performance  system and the Draft Transportation Impact Assessment proposal).

Ideally, the same high-level criteria should govern each of these decision-making events, even if there is a slightly different emphasis for each.  And, ideally, those criteria should have the same hierarchy:

* starting with the user experience of the problem (or need) being addressed and the proposed (or completed) solution…including both current users and potential future ones, both “in-vehicle” people and those living/working/traveling near the vehicles; then

* checking to what degree the proposed (or completed) project moves our transportation system towards key state and MassDOT policy goals; then

* noting how well the proposed (or complete) project meets (or exceeded) MassDOT’s and FHWA’s technical criteria, including whether it meet “desired” targets rather than “minimal acceptable” one; and finally

* how well the project meets budget and scheduling requirements (or expectations).

The list of Alternative Performance Measures in NACTO’s (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Urban Street Design Guide has some good initial suggestions, but we need to go further.   MassDOT deserves enormous credit for beginning to develop criteria for the three high-leverage decision points,  but it’s not clear that the agency sees them as a unified whole – there are three separate groups and processes dealing with each one.  What’s needed are a single set of easy-to-understand metrics, not some complex (even if perfectly tuned) methodology.  Coming up with a coherent, start to finish set of progressive criteria will not only be good for Massachusetts but might set the framework for a national effort to go beyond the car-centric and skimpy criteria being proposed for the federal MAP-21 Transportation program.

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MASS PIKE EXITS: Master Key for Unlocking Boston Roads from Esplanade to Allston

March 25, 2014

In real life there are no magic wands whose waving causes all problems to disappear, no magic pill that makes everything better.   But sometimes there are Master Keys that open a series of blockages and create new routes forward.  Even in transportation.  One possible Master Key is finding  ways to install new on/off ramps on the Mass Pike Extension from Allston to Mass Ave.

Right now, MassDOT planners are struggling with how to design the quarter-billion-dollar Mass Pike Re-alignment project at the Allston exit while maintaining (or expanding) the MBTA and Commuter Rail usage, with the final redesign of Cambridge Street from Harvard Ave to the Charles River, with the best way to fix the messed-up traffic on the Boston side of the BU bridge, with the appropriate design for Commonwealth Ave from the BU bridge to (and past) Packards Corner, and with what to do about the collapsing Fenway-to-Storrow Bowker Overpass (in addition to the path, initially proposed by the Solomon Foundation, from Beacon Street to the Mass Ave bridge)

AND MORE…

At the same time, community and advocacy groups are pushing for pedestrian and bike routes that reconnect Allston Village (near the new Harvard Campus) with Comm Ave, and that run along the Grand Junction railway from Somerville through Cambridge over the RR bridge (under the BU bridge) to Allston.  Residents in the Charlesgate area are demanding that the Bowker be torn down and the area – an extension of the historic Emerald Necklace listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Olmsted Park System – be rescued from the dominating concrete.  The Esplanade Association’s Vision 2020 is seeking to slow and reduce traffic on Storrow Drive in order to expand and protect that amazing parkland.  Last, but not least, the Red Sox and many Longwood Medical Area employers are desperately looking for ways to get their car-traveling patrons (and employees) more efficiently to and from their locations.

All these official and citizen efforts are finding their options relatively unsatisfying.  In almost every case, the amount of traffic that MassDOT (and sometimes Boston Transportation Department) planners anticipate requires dedicating so much space to cars that transit and non-motorized modes (and users) get short changed.  (It is likely that official projections of future car traffic are too high – there is a long national history of assuming more growth than has actually occurred.  But it will take years and enormous technical sophistication to revise current Projected Traffic Modeling software to incorporate contemporary trends of reduced car ownership and usage, increased transit and bike usage along with a huge and slowly emerging latent demand for walkable-bikeable-trainable communities.  In the meantime, we are stuck with overblown estimates that can limit and distort the available options.)

THE MASTER KEY

But here’s the amazing thing, the Master Key:  the options available in each of these situations would be radically expanded, and improved, if there were more and better off-on ramps for the Mass Pike Extension as it runs from downtown Boston to the Allston toll booths.  Not only would it move most traffic from Storrow to the Pike, it would make it easier to deal with the Allston toll plaza redesign and the other areas as well.

That’s a big claim, and there are so many intertwining components that our state’s Transportation Mage, Fred Salvucci, warns that it might be much smarter – and a lot more politically and financially realistic – to assume “that there will be no turnpike connections in this area in the short term…we might better place energy into getting public transportation means to attract people out of their cars.”

BOLDLY GOING…

But the potential payoff of coming up with a good MassPike Extension On/Off Ramp solution is so large that it’s at least worth some out-of-the-box brainstorming.  And that’s what a bunch of people in the extended LivableStreets Alliance network have been doing for the best month or so.   Some of the ideas are straightforward; some are pretty imaginative.   But it’s likely that all are technically possible.  And all would both move car traffic more efficiently while creating room for pedestrians, bicyclists, and lots more parkland.   The bottom line, as usual, is money and political will – as well as a willingness to stretch the traditional envelope:  MassDOT has done its own studies of on-off ramp possibilities and has not yet come up with a workable option.

I do not intend to give a full description of all the ideas floating around – Frank O’Dette has put together an amazing You-Tube video that gives an easy to follow and visually understandable introduction to most of them.  Although the video revolves around ways to eliminate the Bowker it includes, by necessity, a creative look at ways to eliminate the traffic flow it now serves by opening additional MassPike Extension ramps.  He calls the video A Cure for B.O.? Fixing Boston’s Armpit: the Bowker Overpass which he describes as “a relic from the 60’s, stinking up the city.”  (If that link doesn’t work, or becomes inoperative due to future revisions, go to YouTube.com and search for “boston armpit” – which will bring you to the latest version.)

OUT OF THE BOX

Here is a list of some the ideas that Frank summarizes:

  • Changing the Mass Ave. Pike on-ramp to an exit and moving the on-ramp further towards Allston;
  • Moving the shift in the RR tracks further out, creating space for an on-ramp from the Fenway;
  • Using part of the Pike breakdown lane for yet other potential on-off ramps;
  • Creating a more direct route from the Pike to the LMA;
  • Shifting a new Charlesgate-to-Fenway overpass to the side of the parkland;
  • Re-using existing pavement for new loops through the area to eliminate traffic light congestion;
  • Turning the road around the Fens into a one-way loop;
  • Building a Comm Ave bypass and Beacon Street diversion;
  • And much more…

Some of the ideas are relatively simple, some are very ambitious, and some are even further out.  But who knows – maybe it IS possible to create something that’s cheaper, safer, greener, more multimodal, and just as effective!

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Thanks to Randall Albright, Parker James, and Frank O’Dette for all the work they’ve put into this effort; and to Ken Kruckemeyer, Peter Furth, Herb Nolan, Charlie Denison, and the other brainstorm contributors!

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Some related previous posts:

> McGRATH HIGHWAY REPAIRS: The Occasional Superiority of Short-Term Solutions

> FIXING THE FUTURE McGRATH/O’BRIEN CORRIDOR: A Six-Lane Boulevard Is Still A Highway

> ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

> NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

> QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

>LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

 

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EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

March 11, 2014

The Human Scale is a wonderful movie based on the powerful insights and work of progressive urban planner, Jan Gehl; it’s now available in CD format.  Everyone who loves cities should see it.  In potently visual scenes, the film lays out his critique of today’s automobile-focused high-rise urban design, the dangers of top-down authoritarian planning and “mega projects,” the value of allowing “ordinary” citizens to shape development goals, and the dynamism unleashed by embracing unplanned and open-ended grass-roots creativity.  It’s an important message from a brilliant person who carries forward the best of the Jane Jacobs and William Whyte tradition of human-centered city life.

But I left the theater extremely unsatisfied.  The movie presents all the evidence needed for a powerful conclusion, and goes as far as saying that “Master Plans” should be replaced with “Frameworks” that leave space for democratic uncertainty.  But it doesn’t really address the complexities of replacing central control with a free market of bottom-up innovation for entire cities or regions — how such an approach deals with planning for needed large-scale infrastructure for water or housing or energy or transportation that inevitably disrupts certain areas, or avoids simply turning planning over to the wealthy or ruthless, or deals with NIMBY parochialism or prejudice against various kinds of incoming “others.”

Maybe I’m jumping ahead of the movie’s own goals, however it seems to me that simply denouncing Le Corbusier and Robert Moses isn’t enough – we need to describe the alternatives.  And we have to admit that creating human scale environments requires not only a participatory, open-ended process but strong leadership as well as a large measure of good luck.

Neither top-down nor unregulated bottom-up: what cities need in order to make themselves livable is a sequence of interactive, tight-loose processes that move through the three phases of Planning, Design, and Implementation that combines broad participation with technical input, democratic debate with accountable central decision-making, long-term visioning of regional needs with sensitivity to particular circumstances, the vital role of strong leadership with the many benefits of distributed innovation, and a realistic understanding of financial realities with profit-making transparency.

Through all three phases, cities need a way to identify and prioritize needed infrastructure even if its construction will be disruptive; a way to mobilize the political momentum needed to push through often contradictory zoning, permitting, code, and regulatory requirements; and a willingness to accept that many end-stage details are simply not knowable at the start.

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